Dane Fletcher excelled in a starting role

by Chris Warner, Patriots Daily Staff

After a comforting 47-12 victory versus Jacksonville last Thursday night, this week the Patriots take the show to Tampa (i.e., New England’s Winter Home).

The Buccaneers went 10-6 last year yet failed to make the playoffs. They look to improve with young quarterback Josh Freeman at the helm and a defense that has improved from its porous 2009 version.

Some points to ponder heading into the second of these meaningless scrimmages that seem to have gained so much significance this year.

To Play’s The Thing: No Tom Brady, Chad Ochocinco, Vince Wilfork or Jerod Mayo last week. While reviewing the youngsters entertained us, we would feel better getting a handle on how the seniors are doing at this point. Can Brady and 8-5 connect? How does Wilfork appear to handle the new look defensive front?

We assume he’ll be awesome. But we’d like a peek, just to be sure.

Pats Tackle The Issue: Will defensive tackle/attention magnet Albert Haynesworth play this preseason? Does it matter? We know three things about Haynesworth: he’s humongous; he likes playing a 4-3, penetrating style of defense; and he looks pretty darn good at it.

In the meantime, players like Kyle Love, Darryl Richard and Landon Cohen will try to bottle up Tampa’s offense while securing a place on a very full roster of D-tackles.

Great Dane: Last year at this time, Dane Fletcher was a little-known defensive end out of Montana State (Go Bobcats!) trying to make a switch to middle linebacker. Last week, Fletcher started on defense and tied for the team lead with five total tackles. His speed and quickness will be worth watching vs. Tampa’s offense, especially if he has to go against bruising running back LaGarrette “Punchy” Blount (who has since redeemed himself for cold-cocking an opposing player in college).

I Know All There Is To Know About The Ryan Game: Considering our pessimistic post-draft outlook on him, rookie quarterback Ryan Mallett’s performance (12 for 19, 164 yards, one TD) gives us hope for his Foxboro future. Yes, we know we shouldn’t get overexcited about one scrimmage, but if you hearken back to former Pats backup QB Matt Cassel flapping around in preseason games like a duck on a hot plate, you can appreciate Mallett’s comparative coolness.

It would help to see him against a different defense – like, say against a Buc D that shut out Kansas City. We just don’t know how much time he’ll get this week.

No Ifs, Ands, Or Butler: It has been disappointing to watch Darius Butler fall down the depth chart. His playing time has decreased (along with, we feel, his prowess). After this interview with PD from a year ago, we felt as though he would have a breakthrough year in 2010.

Now, after watching him against Jacksonville, we wonder how much he can contribute. He was the co-leader with five tackles, which is never a good sign for a cornerback (you can only tackle guys if the quarterback throws the ball your way). Look for Butler to put in time against the Bucs and make a noteworthy play or two.

Answering The Ridley: Rookie running back Stevan Ridley led all rushers with 16 carries for 64 yards and two TDs last Thursday. It will interest us to see whether he gets more carries or if it’s time for veteran BenJarvus Green-Ellis to get on the gridiron.

Ridley seems to have the elusive fast-food combo: some beef with a shake. That power and prowess should serve him well. Tampa has recovered from the worst run defense in the league in 2009, holding Kansas City to under 100 yards on the ground last week. It would be informative to see what Ridley can do against them Thursday.

To Aaron Is Fumble, To Forgive, Divine: Two fumbles for tight end Aaron Hernandez? That means Tampa’s defense will rip away at the ball like a Great White Shark rips away at the flesh of a dead whale off the coast of Chatham, Mass.

(Sorry. Still recovering from shark week.)

Kicking Themselves: A return game with as much excitement as a trip to the DMV? Bad. A botched extra-point snap and a kickoff out of bounds? Worse. Time for the special teamers to get their act together. The less we talk about them after their trip to Tampa, the better.

Medlin With The Team, For Now: If rookie free agent running back Richard Medlin makes the Patriots’ final roster, I will go swimming off the coast of Chatham wearing a sushi necklace. Still, Medlin deserves credit for his 14 carries for 54 yards and two TDs.

Kudos to the New England scouts for finding Medlin at Fayetteville State (Go Broncos! – his college highlights here). Whether Medlin this year or Fletcher last year, the preseason gives fans the chance to see players so out of sight the witness protection program asks them for advice.

Depending on the playing time of Patriot starters, guys like Medlin could get more chances against the Bucs.

Enjoy the game. Hey, it’s Tampa. Why wouldn’t New England visit?

Chris Warner can be reached at chris.warner@patriotsdaily.com